How Much Research Is Too Much Research?

April 29, 2011

At one point in the writing of this memoir about my father’s wartime experience, I decided that I needed to know far more about World War II than I did.  Oh, I’d studied World War II in high school and college history class.  And I’d read a great deal about the war when I was writing about Virginia Woolf’s life.  But when I started this memoir, I had a nagging suspicion that I didn’t know anything that I needed to know.  And I was right.

My father served on an island in the Pacific, and everything I’d learned had been about the war in Europe.  I’d heard of the important battles of Midway and Guadalcanal.  But I knew nothing, really, about the island hopping strategy to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific.  And so I began to educate myself.

A few years ago, I bought several sets of tapes, hundreds of hours of tapes, about the war.  Documentary footage.  Sets of TV series about the war.  Scores of books.  First person accounts and memoirs.  And I started watching and reading.  I spent six months on this research, and when I finished (or thought I was finished), I was astonished, not by what I’d learned, but what I had yet to learn.

I wanted to know what my parents’ lives were like during that war.  I wanted to know what they were reading in the newspapers.  I wanted to imagine how what they’d learned had affected them.  I wanted to do this because I wanted to contextualize their personal lives in the context of the history of their times because, of course, they were affected by their times, and not only in the most obvious way – that my father left his family to go to the Pacific.  I imagined that every moment of every waking day of their lives must have been affected by the times they were living in, and I wanted to be able to recreate that world, their world.

I’ve read a lot of memoirs that are so intensely personal that it’s as if the people written about were living their lives in a world sealed off from history.  As if love affairs were begun and ended, children conceived, born and raised in isolation from the historical moment in which these events occurred.  And when I started to write about my parents’ story during World War II, I tried to do that.  I tried to write only about their lives and not about what was going on around them until I realized that this would be impossible.

I wrote the first few drafts of how they set up their first apartment – the work they did in papering the walls, buying and setting up furniture – for example, without realizing that while they were doing this work, the radio reports they listened to were telling of fires raging through bombed out London because there was no water left to fight the fires; of the German invasion of the Soviet Union; of the uncovering of a Nazi spy network in the U. S. and their plan to bomb the docks where my grandfather work; of Roosevelt’s speech declaring that the U. S. would no longer isolate itself from the war; of Mayor LaGuardia’s issuing an order for 50 million gas masks in the event of a German attack.

All this happened before the war, and, initially, I didn’t understand that the slow creep towards war profoundly affected them.

Setting up house is one thing.  Setting up house when you’re listening to news reports telling you your husband-to-be will soon be gone is another.  Setting up house when you’re listening to reports that other people’s houses are burning is another.  Setting up house when you’re hearing that New York City might be bombed is another.

What I’m saying is that we all live in history, only that when we write our memoirs we sometimes forget that no life is lived in isolation.

I’ve learned through time that early in the writing of memoir, many writers keep their stories close.  That is, many writers write only about their lives and not about the historical moment.  Many writers of memoir stop there.  And that’s fine.  That’s one kind of memoir.  But it’s not the kind of work I’ve found myself doing now.

I’ve felt compelled to try to contextualize my parents’ lives in their history.  For their history is, of course, my own.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think there’s an impulse in the United States to think about our lives in an ahistorical way.  That is, there’s an impulse in the United States to think about our lives as if they’re unaffected by the times we live in.  Our wars, these days, are waged by a few.  We are not asked to make the sacrifices other generations that have gone to war have made.  There’s no rationing.  We haven’t been asked to use less gasoline.  We haven’t halted the production of cars.  We haven’t had to cut down on our intake of butter, meat, sugar, flour.  We haven’t had to stop wearing nylon stockings.  There seems to be an impulse, here, to pretend that whatever happens really doesn’t matter to our individual lives.  That we can love and live “normal” lives, unaffected by history.  All of us, of course, except those few of us profoundly affected by history.

And I think this impulse carries over to the way we tell our stories, our life stories.  At least those of use who continue to act and think as if we live in an historical vacuum.

But in fact, though we often pretend that we do, none of us really does.

I often ask the writers I work with to find out something more about the people they’re writing about.  Something about their history – not only their personal history, but about the historical moment surrounding their lives.  Many resist, and that’s fine.  I know that when I started writing about my parents, I didn’t want to see them as having lived lives profoundly affected by history.  I wanted to see them only as my parents, only as inhabiting the space inside our dwellings.  And why that’s so, I can’t say.

I’ve just finished, early this morning, a time line tracing the events that happened during a two-year period I’m now writing about – the years just prior to my father’s deployment.  I’ve plotted this time line against the events in my parents’ lives.  And doing so has unearthed much that I’m still pondering.  What must it have been like, for example, for my parents to take a walk overlooking the Hudson River and to have seen hundreds of ships there – a convoy about to make its way across the North Atlantic, a convoy, that they would later read was attacked by U-boats.  What must it have been like, for example, to go down the Jersey shore, as they did, as see body parts from downed cargo ships wash up on the shore?

A trip to the ocean is one thing.  A trip to the ocean with flotsam from sunken ships, body parts washing up on shore, and oil from downed tankers is quite another.

So although I’m using only a small part of the research I’ve done, I’m happy that I’ve read and viewed as much as I have.  Because I think it’s all drawn me closer to what their lives must have been like.


3 Responses to “How Much Research Is Too Much Research?”

  1. Jennifer Cruz Says:

    I am about to embark on a similar journey. I started writing an essay piece about my brother going off to war in Afghanistan for my Creative Non Fiction class. In it I bring up my grandfather and his involvement in the Dominican Revolution of 1965 where he perished. I only have stories from my grandmother about this time but she doesnt remember much or chooses not to go into details. In the writing of my essay I found that I knew nothing really about Dominican Republics real history. I have become thirsty for information. I had planned to go to Dominican Republic for vacation, but I found out that my grandfathers brother is still alive and may have belongings of my grandfather. Now, I plan on meeting this never before seen great uncle of mine to learn as much as I can about my grandfather and that time in the country’s history. I am hoping that this will enrich not only my essay but me as well.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  2. ajuele Says:

    I suppose the short answer to your question is that you can never do enough research. The challenge I posed to myself for my work on this new piece was to get myself out of the stories that I held close, the ones just about myself and my little world, my small cast of characters. When I set out to write a piece about the Philippines, I really had no idea how much research would go into it. Nearing the completion of the piece, I looked at scores of maps, had to look up dozens of native food and recipes, tracked down papers written by grandparents, thumbed through boxes of photographs. And though the research helped me immensely, only a tiny bit of it – I hope – shows in the final piece. I attempted to weave the research seamlessly into the work, as you have in writing about your father in the context of the war. Writing about my family is one thing. Writing about my family immigrating to the U.S. is another. Writing about what my family left behind in the Philippines is another. And so there is no limit to how much research you can do, only how much you include in your work. I found that knowing more about the history helped the writing, regardless of if I wrote it out specifically or not.

  3. marcpollifrone Says:

    It’s funny, I’ve been working on a novel about MDMA abuse in white suburban middle class youth and I’ve been tape recording interviews with people. I’m starting to wonder if just using my firsthand experiences and my imagination might be more beneficial for the project.

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